x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Plan to test people for hepatitis C at city malls

Mall shoppers could be swab-tested for hepatitis C in the Emirates if certain health experts have their way.

DUBAI // Health experts are drafting plans to test people for hepatitis C at malls in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

The testing initiative by the Emirates Association was announced yesterday at a press conference ahead of today's World Hepatitis Day.

Doctors are urging residents to diagnose the disease early so that it can be treated and potentially cured.

"Most of the people affected do not know that they have the virus, and once they are sick ... it might be too late for treatment," said Dr Salim Al Kathiry, a consultant gastroenterologist and hepatologist at Al Jazeira Hospital and Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi.

"Our aim now is to search for patients with hepatitis C, and this is our challenge," Dr Al Kathiry said.

Hepatitis C, which often does not produce symptoms immediately after infection, can lead to liver failure. The examinations at malls would be conducted through the use of a swab test that can detect whether antibodies are present.

"If we get permission from the health authorities, then we can start as soon as possible," Dr Al Kathiry said. He said the most common form of infection is through young intravenous drug users, explaining that treating one young person about the disease can open the door to others, including the infected person's circle of friends.

Doctors also sought to eradicate the social stigma associated with the disease.

"One important aspect is not only for doctors to treat hepatitis C, but to teach people about the modes of transmission and that the disease is curable," he said.

Although all Emiratis get free treatment, expatriates tend to rely on a limited number of insurance companies or the many charities for assistance. One such charity is the Zakat Fund, which contributed about Dh7.7 million in 2010 to fund the treatment of people with hepatitis C, according to Abdullah bin Aqeeda Al Muhairy, the Secretary General of the Zakat Fund, which issued a statement yesterday ahead of World Hepatitis Day.

At yesterday's press conference, medical experts from across the Mena region also issued a consensus statement based on a study carried out last year. In the study, doctors highlighted the challenges posed by what they described as "chronic" hepatitis C in the region.

Although 9.2 million people in the Middle East and North Africa region have been diagnosed with the disease, it is estimated that 0.8 to 2 per cent of people living in the UAE have been diagnosed with it.

For most countries involved in the study, the prevalence of hepatitis C was estimated at between 1 and 2 per cent, with the exception of Egypt, which recorded 14 per cent.

balqabbani@thenational.ae